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Russia Begins Test Flights for New Variant of the Tu-160 - Plans to Return its Foremost Strategic Bomber to Serial Production

February 02nd - 2018

In production from 1984 to 1992, Russia's Tu-160 represents the most modern strategic bomber in the world outside the United States and very possibly the most capable aircraft of its kind ever built. While the collapse of the Soviet Union cut the program short at just 27 aircraft and nine prototypes, the 'White Swan' as it is commonly called could potentially seen a return to serial production. Russia's bomber fleet has since its induction been extensively modernised, most recently with modernisation to the Tu-160M2 variant, and future platforms are also set to be built with far more advanced capabilities than their predecessors. The M2 variant for example was equipped with new engines for improved range and thrust as well as modern avionics, control systems, electronics and a glass cockpit. The bomber's nuclear and conventional cruise missiles have also continued to undergo modernisation, and the missiles deployed today are far more capable than those of the 1990s.

In January 2018 Russia began test flights for a new variant of the Tu-160, which would be developed not by upgrading older airframes but rather by restarting production lines long since closed. The prototype for this new bomber was however based on the airframe of an older platform. A Russian Defence Ministry source stated regarding the new bomber: “The 804th plane made using Soviet aircraft breakthroughs took to the skies for the first time last week and has been performing evaluation flights since then." The prototype will be used to gain additional flight test data — which is essential before a production line for fully mission capable bombers can be started.

Observing tests of the new bomber in person at the Gorbunov Aircraft Plant in Kazan, Russian President Putin gave some details as to possibly future production of the White Swan bombers. He stated: “A contract for 10 aircraft is to be signed shortly. Each jet will cost more than 15 billion rubles ($270 million) and the overall contract will total 160 billion rubles. This means the factory will be operating at full capacity through 2027. There will be plenty of things to do.... It is a serious step to advance the development of the high-tech industry and strengthen the country’s defense capabilities, because it is one of the elements of our nuclear triad." The Russian President also suggested the possibility of commissioning a civilian airliner based on the Tu-160 to connect Russia's Far East to Kaliningrad, and doing so would help to drive down the cost per airframe of the bomber variant.

The Tu-160 lacks the advanced stealth capabilities of the American B-2 Spirit, but otherwise outperforms rival bomber platforms across the board. With a speed of Mach 2.05 it can outrun all rival platforms by a significant margin, while it comes heavily armed with twelve AS-16 Kickback nuclear cruise missiles or six Kh-55 cruise missiles which carry high payloads and capable of striking targets 3000km away. The range of the Kh-55 is such that Tu-160 flying over Moscow could potentially fire its cruise missiles against targets in London 2,800km away. Long range cruise missiles allow the bomber to steer well clear of enemy air defences, with no air defence system exceeding the 400km range of Russia's own S-400 and Western made systems not exceeding ranges of 250km. As the United States continues to upgrade its air defences and tensions between Russia and the Western bloc escalate, the Tu-160 remains a lethal platform no other country can match - and its return to production will be met with much apprehension by the country's adversaries.

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